In her short stories Helena María Viramontes (born February 26, 1954) provides a vision of Hispanic women in American society, presenting female characters whose lives are limited by the patriarchy of Hispanic society and the imposition of religious values. She provides a humanistic and caring approach to the poor and downtrodden women who inhabit the working-class world of her fiction. She deals with the issues of abortion, aging, death, immigration, divorce, and separation. The stories in The Moths, and Other Stories are arranged in the order of the stages in a woman’s life, beginning with the story of a young girl in “The Moths” moving on to stories of women in the later stage of life. Near the end of the collection, “Snapshots” is the story of a divorced woman who feels that she has wasted her life in the mundane and demanding trivia of housework. “Neighbors” depicts an elderly woman, isolated and living in fear of the young men in the neighborhood.
“The Moths” is the story of a young Chicana girl who finds a safe refuge in caring for her aging grandmother, her abuelita. Constantly in trouble at home, fighting with her sisters, and receiving whippings, the rebellious fourteenyear- old girl finds a purpose for her life as she works with her grandmother to plant flowers and grow them in coffee cans. Viramontes describes in detail how the two women nurture the plants as they form a world of their own, away from the dominating force of the girl’s father.
The story contains elements of the Magical Realism that characterizes much contemporary Third World American literature. When her more feminine sisters call her “Bull Hands” because her hands are too large and clumsy for the fine work of embroidery or crocheting, the girl feels her hands begin to grow. As her grandmother soothes the hands in a balm of dried moth wings and Vicks, the girl feels her hands shrink back to normal size. Another example of Magical Realism occurs at the end of the story, when the image of the moths is realized as they fly out of the dead grandmother’s mouth.
The women exist in a world of wild lilies, jasmine, heliotrope, and cilantro, working with mayonnaise jars and coffee cans. The vines of chayotes wind around the pillars of the grandmother’s house, climbing to the roof and creating the illusion that the house is “cradled” in vines, safe and protected. In her own home the girl’s Apá, her father, forces her to go to church by banging on the table, threatening to beat her, and lashing out at her mother, her Amá. In one brief scene Viramontes is able to portray the brutal hold the father has on the family. In contrast to this household, the grandmother’s house, devoid of a masculine presence, is a place of peace and growth. When the grandmother dies, the girl finds her, and she bathes her grandmother’s body in a ceremony. As she performs this ritual, the girl sees the old scars on the woman’s back, evidence that she, too, had suffered beatings.
As the story opens, Olga Ruiz, a woman whose husband has left her, reflects on her life and admits that it was the “small things in life” that made her happy: “ironing straight arrow creases” on her husband’s work shirts and cashing in coupons. Now that she has reached middle age, she realizes that she has wasted her life in the pursuit of housework with nothing to show for all her efforts. Now that she is alone, a hopeless lethargy has set in, and she seems unable to cope with her new circumstances. Marge, her daughter, tries to get her involved with projects, pleading “Please. Mother. Knit. Do something.”
As she pores over the snapshots in family albums, Olga sees that she has been “longing for a past that never actually existed.” The title of the story refers to more than the actual snapshots. Olga sees snapshots as ghosts and feels “haunted by the frozen moments.” She remembers her grandmother’s fear that snapshots would steal a person’s soul, and she recounts how her grandfather tried to take a family picture with his new camera; not knowing how to operate it, he took the film out and expected it to develop in the sunlight. As the story ends, Olga, fearing that her grandmother was right, decides that if she finds a picture of her grandmother, she will destroy it.
Viramontes paints a portrait of a woman who has devoted her life to being a good wife and mother, cooking, cleaning, taking care of others, and then in her middle years has been abandoned. Her husband has remarried, and her son-inlaw is tired of her calls to her daughter, Marge. At one point he takes the phone away from Marge and says, “Mrs. Ruiz, why don’t you leave us alone.” A few minutes later, Dave, her former husband calls and asks her to “leave the kids alone.” After a lifetime of hard work, Olga has been left alone, feeling that her life was worthless.
“Neighbors,” the last story in the collection, tells the story of Aura Rodriguez, an isolated seventy- three-year-old woman who lives in fear of the young men in her neighborhood, who have vowed to get even with her for calling the police on them. Realizing that she must take care of herself, she gets a gun and sits in a chair facing the door, ready to protect herself. This story opens with a description of a neighborhood that has “slowly metamorphosed into a graveyard.” Aura believes in living within her own space and expects her neighbors to do the same.
In the words of Fierro, Aura’s old neighbor, Viramontes repeats the metaphor of the graveyard that she used at the beginning of the story. Fierro remembers the quiet hills and old homes that existed before the government destroyed the houses and covered the land with “endless freeway” that “paved over his sacred ruins, his secrets, his graves . . . his memories.” The story is filled with realistic details such as the description of Aura’s “Ben Gay scented house slipper.”
The Cariboo Café
Conflict in Central America is the focus of “The Cariboo Café,” in which a woman from El Salvador has suffered the loss of her child at the hands of government officials. Interwoven with the story of her grief is the story of the cook, who suffers from loneliness after losing his wife and son, and the terrified illegal immigrants who fear capture by the police. The woman from El Salvador, who has been mourning the loss of her small son for several years, mistakenly believes that one of the immigrants in the café is her son.
In the first segment of this three-part story, Sonya and her brother Macky, children of illegal immigrants, are frightened when they see a police officer seizing a man on the street. Trained to fear the police, the children run to the café for protection. In the second part, the narrator is the cook, who has shown immigration agents where the immigrants are hiding even though they have been regular customers. The narrator of the third part is the Salvadoran woman whose young son was taken by army officials. After numerous attempts to find her son, the woman moved across the Mexican border to the United States. In the final, violent confrontation when the police enter the café, the woman fights them, identifying them with the army officials who took her son. Viramontes tells this complex story through shifting points of view to reveal different perspectives as she shows the power of oppressive governments.
Anthologies: Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature, 1987, revised 1996 (with María Herrera-Sobek); Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film, 1995 (with Herrera-Sobek).
Novels: Under the Feet of Jesus, 1995; Their Dogs Came with Them, 2000.
Nonfiction: “Nopalitos: The Making of Fiction,” 1989; “Why I Write,” 1995.
Bibliography Bair, Barbara J. “The Cariboo Café.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 1. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
____________. “The Moths.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 5. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Carbonell, Ana Maria. “From Llarona to Gritona: Coatlicue in Feminist Tales by Viramontes and Cisneros.” MELUS 24 (Summer, 1999): 53-74.
Green, Carol Hurd, and Mary Grimley Mason. American Women Writers. New York: Continuum, 1994.
Moore, Deborah Owen. “La Llarona Dines at the Cariboo Cafe: Structure and Legend in the Works of Helena María Viramontes.” Studies in Short Fiction 35 (Summer, 1998): 277-286.
Richards, Judith. “Chicano Creativity and Criticism: New Frontiers in American Literature.” College Literature 25 (Spring, 1998): 182.
Saldivar-Hull, Sonia. “Helena María Viramontes.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Chicano Writers series. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.
Swyt, Wendy. “Hungry Women: Borderlands Mythos in Two Stories by Helena María Viramontes.” MELUS 23 (Summer, 1998): 189-201.
Yarbo-Bejarano, Yvonne. Introduction to “The Moths, and Other Stories.” Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1995.